It's human nature to seek validation of our beliefs in the lives of history's most admired figures. Liberals and conservatives alike, for example, have long claimed to best reflect the teachings of Jesus Christ.
And as the 50th anniversary of his assassination had demonstrated, a similar tug-of-war is underway regarding the rightful heirs of President John F. Kennedy's legacy – a man whose record often contradicts his status as a liberal icon, according to a new book that has been ridiculed on the left but embraced by conservatives as diverse as George Will and Rush Limbaugh.
Will, the erudite Washington Post columnist, does not entirely accept the argument set forth in “JFK, Conservative,” writing that author Ira Stoll “tries to prove too much but assembles sufficient evidence that his book's title is not merely provocative.” Limbaugh, whose radio show caters more to grass-roots conservatives, not only buys Stoll's premise but argues that Kennedy's assassination by an avowed communist somehow caused the Democratic Party to veer sharply to the left because its members could not accept that a right-wing wacko – probably in cowboy boots – didn't pull the trigger.
I don't know about that, but there is plenty of evidence, for anyone willing to take an honest look, that Kennedy had more in common with Ronald Reagan than Barack Obama.
As Will and Stoll have noted, Kennedy practiced “supply side” economics more than 20 years before Reagan sis the same thing. Kennedy proposed a tax cut to boost jobs and government income in 1962, saying the “federal government's most useful role is . . . to expand the incentives and opportunities for private expenditures . . . the soundest way to raise revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now.”
No talk of the need to make sure the rich “pay their fair share,” even if – as President Obama admitted when speaking about the inheritance tax – if might actually decrease government revenues.
Kennedy's rhetoric, too, was Reaganesque. Where President Obama's style has been described as “leading from behind,” JFK in his inaugural address pledged that America would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
In the same speech, Kennedy reminded Americans that their rights “come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God” before famously imploring them to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Today, Americans are told they have a “right” to health care.
Meanwhile, America's space program has been gutted to pay for domestic programs. But Kennedy inspired the nation literally to shoot for the moon – “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
And, like Reagan, Kennedy was a staunch anti-communist who sought to build up America's military – and, like Reagan, later sought an understanding with the Russians out of a position of strength, not weakness.
And when that anti-communism caused Kennedy to approve the CIA-backed 1961 invasion at Cuba's Bay of Pigs, Kennedy accepted responsibility for the resulting debacle. Unlike Obama, he did not publicly blame his predecessor, even though planning had begun under Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
On civil rights, Kennedy's record was spotty, but he did eventually come around – movement that allowed Lyndon Johnson to pass sweeping civil-rights legislation a year after Kennedy's death. But that vote had a decidedly GOP flavor: 82 percent of Republicans in the Senate and 80 percent in the House supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Among Democrats, it was 69 percent and 63 percent, respectively.
That so many Americans still want to identify with Kennedy, 50 years after his death, is a tribute to the universality of his appeal. The same could be said for Jesus, whose admonition to help the poor has inspired both the welfare state and a healthy aversion to it.
There was no such internal struggle for me on that terrible day 50 years ago, when I went into my bedroom and sobbed after learning what had happened in Dallas. I was an 8-year-old third-grader, hardly either a liberal or conservative. But I was an American, still na´ve enough to trust and even love my president.
I'm a lot older and, hopefully, wiser now. But part of me misses those days, and I suspect others do, too. Which is probably why, despite all the things that divide us, JFK still has the power to unite us.